Is it fair to review a wine at the winery, with the winemaker, staring at the label?
I’ve asked this question before, so please forgive me if you think it’s a little tired as a topic. But it has arisen in a new, somewhat virulent form lately, for a variety of reasons I’m not prepared to explain now, but the details don’t matter. The big question is: Can a wine reviewer properly review a wine at the estate, with the winemaker, knowing what the wine is?
Consider, please, from the point of view of the reviewer. He or she has been cordially welcomed at the property. Probably there’s some kind of tour: of the vineyard, which of course is presented as the greatest viticulture on earth, and of the winery, with fabulous new equipment. All this is interspersed by probing conversations in which each side is trying to get to the essential personhood and humanity of the reviewer’s host.
Sometimes, it’s impossible to truly know your host. They haven’t invited you for that. But all the reviewer can do is try.
Now, we at Wine Enthusiast have a firm policy that wines cannot be reviewed except under strict blind circumstances. That is a severe policy, but it does make sense. The theory of our tasting department is that, if you know what the wine is, you cannot possibly be objective. Even if you think you know yourself pretty well–and who among us doesn’t think that?–you cannot help but be influenced by the facts. If you know the wine is an $8 California appellated wine, you’ll be unable to give it a very high score. On the other hand–I’m just reaching here for an illustration to make my point–if you’re at Screaming Eagle, you “know” you’re tasting a great Napa Valley Cabernet, and will be predisposed to give it a high score.
Think about your own integrity. Do you believe you’re incapable of “objectively” reviewing Screaming Eagle if you know what it is? Well, if you’re just some “average consumer” whose review won’t make it into print, you don’t really have to worry about that. But then, the “average consumer” will never be invited to Screaming Eagle to taste with the winemaker.
I don’t mean to pick on Screaming Eagle. I could substitute dozens of other wineries, mainly Napa cults but also including Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Rhônes from around the state, who refuse to allow critics to taste their wines, except at the estate, with the winemaker, after the necessary indoctrination. Here’s my question: What are they afraid of? I’m sure there are immature, insecure wine reviewers who are so flattered by being invited to the winery that they inflate the score. I don’t want to get into any lawsuits here, but to the best of my knowledge–and I tend to get good information–Robert Parker and his new California replacement, Antonio Galloni, taste openly, at the winery. Do you think that’s a fair, objective way to taste? I’m not saying it isn’t. I think I can know what I’m tasting and be uninfluenced by that knowledge. But I can’t prove it–and you, the consumer–deservedly need to know to what extent a review is “biased” and to what extent it’s unfettered.
To me, the more interested question ins, Why would a winery welcome a critic like me to review their wine, but only on the property, with the winemaker, openly looking at the bottle? I cannot answer this question: it’s something only the proprietor can. But I’ve been around long enough to venture a guess. When a critic tastes at the winery, he or she tends to overestimate the wine. If you’re dealing with the hundred-point system, this can amount to 3, 4, 5 points in the wine’s favor. Maybe more; who knows? Nobody’s ever done a scientific study, and no one ever will. That’s why wineries want us to taste with them: they know that, no matter how good their wines are, they’re often no better than a competition that costs less. They have something to hide, and to protect. If I have any legacy to leave behind me, it’s that a budding wine critic should view an invitation to taste only at the winery with high suspicion.